The po-boy culture of New Orleans is deep and wide, extending from acclaimed eateries on every visitor’s bucket list to convenience store delis for a simple, no fuss lunch. This weekend’s Oak Street Po-Boy Festival even functions as a high-profile showcase for where po-boys can go, with a wild range of one-day wonders on French bread.
But a different read on the city’s favorite sandwich persists at another type of po-boy purveyor. These are the unsung backstreet shops of the suburbs, eateries that keep a low profile but maintain a strong tradition, show gregarious character, enjoy loyal followings and have added some distinctive signature sandwiches to the po-boy pantheon.
I’ve been on the hunt for this type of po-boy shop. We’ll feature them all together in tomorrow’s paper, and today we highlight them one at a time.
4304 Ellen St., Jefferson, 504-846-3545
Don’t miss: chicken fried steak po-boy (Thursdays only)
Parenton’s shares a tiny paved patio with the adjacent house, and it looks a little like a detached garage. In fact, its roots go back to a grocery store called Parenton’s that opened in 1946 in the Irish Channel, at the corner of First and Constance streets.
It was moved to Jefferson sometime in the 1950s and switched hands a few times before Brenda Castillo and Dennis Valentino took over in 2009.
Today, Valentino runs the kitchen, Castillo runs the show. It’s an interactive one. She sells longnecks beers for a buck at a restaurant never open past 3 p.m. She hands out free candy to kids. And she keeps a comment book just for children to give their feedback (“hats off to the chef,” wrote one in careful penmanship; “I love fries,” another declared in crayon). Every year Castillo makes a calendar with a collage of photos showing her regulars and newcomers on each page.
The paneled walls here are covered with New Orleans memorabilia and personal mementos, from Rex pins to a vintage Schwegmann’s grocery bag, both framed.
“It’s a small place but every inch of it tells a story,” she said. “This place keeps my heart beating.”
The po-boy business is a second act for Castillo, who worked for many years at Ochsner hospital. Though it was a new line of work, the old school menu and approach that were already well established at Parenton’s struck a chord.
“When I grew up Uptown you’d get a pound of liver cheese and a loaf of French bread and feed the whole family,” she said. “That’s why we still have that stuff here. People from the older generation love that.”
The size of your appetite, rather than the vintage of your generation, might steer some of the more contemporary choices here.
For his “Gramp’s Italian Boy,” Valentino covers griddled Italian sausage with peppers and onions, provolone and mozzarella. And a weekly plate lunch special of chicken fried steak made the leap to the po-boy loaf, served on Thursdays only, with long, thin sheets of steak stretching across the length of the bread, it’s crisp, well-seasoned edges jutting out past the crust.
Follow Ian McNulty on Twitter @IanMcNultyNOLA.